A quintet of college football athletes—along with traditions from their respective schools—are featured in a new campaign for Powerade, the Coca-Cola Co.-owned sports drink brand and longtime challenger to Gatorade.
Powerade calls on college athletes to rep brand following Ja Morant debacle
The campaign, called “It Takes More,” is the first college football campaign in Powerade history. It comes as the brand looks to rebound from a marketing setback this spring when NBA endorser Ja Morant became the subject of multiple disciplinary issues just as a March Madness-themed campaign featuring him was to launch. Morant’s Powerade ad never aired, according to iSpot TV; similar spots with a non-celebrity cast did.
Powerade’s business unit, called Bodyarmor Sports Nutrition, is now under new marketing leadership: Tom Gargiulo, formerly chief operating officer at food tech company Nicks, was hired as chief marketing officer in March as Matt Dzamba departed. Gargiulo said the brand made “a huge strategy shift” to focus on college sports as it moved on from Morant. “It’s too bad what happened with Ja, but we made a strategy shift and we’re leaning in on college sports,” Gargiulo said. Morant has been suspended by the NBA twice since March over social media videos showing the star point guard brandishing guns.
Athletes featured in the new ad include Florida State University defensive end Jared Verse; Louisiana State University quarterback Jayden Daniels; University of Georgia quarterback Malaki Starks; University of Southern California wide receiver Mario Williams; and University of Iowa running back Kaleb Johnson. Their endorsements are permissible under the so-called name, image, and likeness rules (NIL) that have been in effect since the middle of 2021, allowing for college athletes to be paid for brand deals.
Powerade has “sideline rights”—or the right to place its products on the sidelines—at all five schools featured in the ad. Highlighted within the campaign are traditions from each of the schools including FSU’s “Break the Rock,” LSU’s “Win Bar,” Georgia’s “Between the Hedges,” USC’s “V for Victory” and Iowa’s “Kinnick Statue.”
The first national spot will debut Sept. 3 ahead of a matchup between Verse’s FSU Seminoles and Daniels’ LSU Tigers. The campaign includes digital creative, out-of-home, radio and social media extensions lasting throughout the football season. Powerade typically has spent most of its ad budget on March Madness, “but we think college football is an awesome space for us,” Gargiulo said. “Our goal is to be synonymous between Powerade and college football.”
The ad comes from WPP Open X, Coca-Cola’s dedicated agency.
Gargiulo said Powerade has relationships with more than 25 universities for sideline rights. “We ultimately landed on these five [colleges] because we thought it was good distribution across the country with some of the bigger programs in college football,” said Gargiulo. “We felt those were really strong programs and fantastic partners for the brand and we wanted to lean in on them.”
Earlier this year, Powerade underwent a realignment and rebranding that put the brand under the Bodyarmor umbrella, while undergoing a reformulation that added more electrolytes and vitamins to make the drink more functional. That led to Powerade boasting in ads that its drink has 50% more electrolytes than Gatorade, a claim that Pepsi-owned Gatorade challenged in a filing to the National Advertising Division of BBB National Programs, which the industry established to adjudicate ad complaints between brands. The organization earlier this month recommended that Powerade discontinue the claim, finding that Powerade's “claims overstated the significance of the nutrient difference.” Coca-Cola has since appealed the organization's ruling.
Gargiulo said consumers have reacted strongly to the changes. “It’s gone phenomenally well,” he said. “Since we launched the formula and the new packaging, we took a brand that had been declining year over year and brought it back to growth, to a point where it's gaining share in the market and growing dollar sales. Retailers, and the Coca-Cola system, are incredibly excited about the brand and its future.”
But according to Coca-Cola's second-quarter earnings report, its sports drink business has yet to reach positive territory, when measured by unit sales—its sports drinks declined 3% in North America, “primarily driven by Bodyarmor and Powerade in the United States,” it stated in a press release.
In addition to the athletes featured in its new ad, more than 60 NIL athletes will create supporting digital and social media content to support the Powerade campaign.
Gargiulo—whose resume includes stints at Kind, Danone and PepsiCo—said moving the focus to college exposes the brand to multiple generations of fans but is especially strong with its target audience of young males who are just starting to make their own purchase decisions.
In his new role, Gargiulo said his mission was to manage Powerade and Bodyarmor as a “two-headed beast” to go after Gatorade.
“These are no longer startup brands, they’re moving to the mainstream, and my job is shepherding into the next phase while still maintaining the entrepreneurship and cutting against the grain,” he said.